Lawrence Welk

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Lawrence Welk
Lawrence welk norma zimmer 1961.JPG
Norma Zimmer and Lawrence Welk, 1961.
Born (1903-03-11)March 11, 1903
Strasburg, North Dakota
Died May 17, 1992(1992-05-17) (aged 89)
Santa Monica, California
Cause of death Bronchopneumonia
Resting place Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California
Occupation Musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario
Spouse(s) Fern Veronica Renner
Children Shirley Welk, Donna Welk, Lawrence "Larry" Welk, Jr.
Website Welk Musical Family

Lawrence Welk (March 11, 1903 – May 17, 1992) was an American musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario, who hosted The Lawrence Welk Show from 1951 to 1982. His style came to be known to his large number of radio, television, and live-performance fans (and critics) as "champagne music".

Early life

Welk was born in the German-speaking community of Strasburg, North Dakota. He was sixth of the eight children of Ludwig and Christiana (née Schwahn) Welk, ethnic Germans who emigrated to America in 1892 from Odessa, Russian Empire (now Ukraine).[1][2] Lawrence Welk was a first cousin, once removed, of former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer. (Welk's mother and Schweitzer's paternal grandmother were siblings.)[3] Welk's grandparents, Moritz and Magdalena Welk, emigrated in 1808 from Alsace-Lorraine to Ukraine.[4]

The family lived on a homestead, which is now a tourist attraction. Growing up speaking German and English, Welk left school during fourth grade to work full-time on the family farm.[1][5] They spent the cold North Dakota winter of their first year inside an upturned wagon covered in sod. Welk decided on a career in music and persuaded his father to buy a mail-order accordion for $400 (equivalent to $4,725 in 2019)[6][7] He promised his father that he would work on the farm until he was 21, in repayment for the accordion. Any money he made elsewhere during that time, doing farmwork or performing, would go to his family.[8]

Early career

On his 21st birthday, having fulfilled his promise to his father, Welk left the family farm to pursue a career in music, which he loved. During the 1920s, he performed with various bands before starting his own orchestra. He led big bands in North Dakota and eastern South Dakota. These included the Hotsy Totsy Boys and later the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra.[9] His band was also the station band for popular radio station WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota. In 1927, he graduated from the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis, Minnesota.[10]

Photo of Welk in Chicago, 1944.

Although many associate Welk's music with a style quite separate from jazz, he did record one notable song in a ragtime style in November 1928 for Richmond, Indiana-based Gennett Records. "Spiked Beer" featured Welk and his Novelty Orchestra.[citation needed]

During the 1930s, Welk led a traveling big band that specialized in dance tunes and "sweet" music (during this period, bands which played light, melodic music were referred to as "sweet bands" to distinguish them from the heavy, loud, rhythmic swing bands of artists like Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington). Initially, the band traveled around the country by car. They were too poor to rent rooms, so they usually slept and changed clothes in their cars. The term "Champagne Music" was derived from an engagement at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, when a dancer referred to his band's sound as "light and bubbly as champagne." The hotel also lays claim to the original "bubble machine," a prop left over from a 1920s movie premiere. Welk described his band's sound, saying "We still play music with the champagne style, which means light and rhythmic. We place the stress on melody; the chords are played pretty much the way the composer wrote them. We play with a steady beat so that dancers can follow it."[11]

Welk's big band performed across the country but particularly in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. In the early 1940s, the band began a 10-year stint at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 7,000. His orchestra also performed frequently at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City during the late 1940s. In 1944 and 1945, Welk led his orchestra in many motion picture "Soundies," considered to be the early pioneers of music videos.[citation needed] Welk collaborated with Western artist Red Foley to record a version of Spade Cooley's "Shame on You" in 1945. The record (Decca 18698) was #4 to Cooley's #5 on Billboard's September 15 "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records" listing.[12] From 1949 through 1951, the band had its own national radio program on ABC, sponsored by "The Champagne of Bottle Beer" Miller High Life.


In addition to the above-mentioned "Spiked Beer", Welk's territory band made occasional trips to Richmond, Indiana and to Grafton, Wisconsin to record a handful of sessions for the Gennett and Paramount companies. In November, 1928, he recorded 4 sides for Gennett spread over two days (1 side was rejected) and in 1931, he recorded 8 sides for Paramount (during two sessions) that were issued on the Broadway and Lyric labels. These records are quite rare and highly valued.

From 1938 to 1940, he recorded frequently in New York and Chicago for the Vocalion label. He signed with Decca in 1941, then recorded for Mercury and Coral for small periods of time before moving to Dot in 1959.

In 1967, Welk exited Dot Records and joined its former executive Randy Wood in creating Ranwood Records. Welk bought back all his masters from Dot and Coral, and Ranwood became the outlet for all of Welk's many artists. They started with a huge reissue of old Dot albums in 1968 to get them started on the right foot.[13][14] Wood's interest was sold to Welk in 1979. In 2015, Welk Music Group sold the Vanguard and Sugar Hill labels to Concord Bicycle Music while retaining ownership of the Ranwood catalog. Welk's estate licensed the Ranwood catalog to Concord Music Group for 10 years.[15]

The Lawrence Welk Show

In 1951, Welk settled in Los Angeles. The same year, he began producing The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLA in Los Angeles, where it was broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach. The show became a local hit and was picked up by ABC in June 1955. In 1952 the Jules Herman Orchestra was asked to be the house band at the Prom, a Ballroom at 1190 University Avenue in St. Paul, MN. The eleven piece troupe was led by Lawrence Welk’s former trumpet player Jules Herman and included his wife Lois (Best). Lois, who sang and played the organ, was Welk’s first official ‘Champagne Lady.’ Herman would front the Prom Orchestra for the next 35 years.

During its first year on the air, the Welk hour instituted several regular features. To make Welk's "Champagne Music" tagline visual, the production crew engineered a "bubble machine" that spouted streams of large bubbles across the bandstand. While the bubble machine was originally engineered to produce soap bubbles, complaints from the band members about soapy build-ups on their instruments led to the machine being re-worked to produce glycerine bubbles instead. Whenever the orchestra played a polka or waltz, Welk himself would dance with the band's female vocalist, the "Champagne Lady." His first Champagne Lady was Jayne Walton Rosen (real name: Dorothy Jayne Flanagan). Jayne left Welk's show after her marriage and later pregnancy. After Welk and his band went on television, she appeared as a guest on the show, where she sang Latin American songs and favorites that were popular when she was traveling with the Welk band. Novelty numbers would usually be sung by Rocky Rockwell (1923-2013), originally from St. Joseph, Missouri. Welk also reserved one number for himself to solo on his accordion.

As Welk's show mainly targeted older viewers, they seldom played recent music that the audience might not be familiar with. On December 8, 1956, two examples on the same broadcast were "Nuttin' for Christmas," which became a vehicle for Rocky Rockwell dressed in a child's outfit, and Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel," which was sung by violinist Bob Lido, wearing fake Presley-style sideburns. On another episode, The Lennon Sisters performed The Orlons' "The Wah-Watusi" with bass singer Larry Hooper wearing a beatnik outfit. This stood in comparison to the contemporary American Bandstand, which catered to a teenager audience and featured the latest acts. On a 1971 episode, Welk infamously billed the Brewer & Shipley single "One Toke Over the Line" (performed as a duet by Gail Farrell and Dick Dale) as a "modern spiritual,"[16] while social conservatives of the era saw it for its subversiveness (Welk later blamed the network for forcing contemporary songs onto the show). However, by later in the 1970s, Welk's programs often included current adult contemporary songs performed by his singers, including "Feelings" and "Love Will Keep Us Together" (made famous by Morris Albert and Captain & Tennille, respectively), and current songs were included up through 1982, the show's final year of production.

Welk never lost his affection for the jazz numbers he had played in the 1920s, and when a Dixieland tune was scheduled he enthusiastically led the band.

Befitting the target audience, the type of music on The Lawrence Welk Show was almost always conservative, concentrating on popular music standards, show tunes, polkas, and novelty songs, delivered in a smooth, calm, good-humored easy listening style and "family-oriented" manner. Although described by one critic (the Canadian journalist and entertainment editor Frank Rasky) as "the squarest music this side of Euclid,",[17] this strategy proved commercially successful and the show remained on the air for 31 years.

Much of the show's appeal was Welk himself. His unusual accent appealed to the audience. While Welk's English was passable, he never did grasp the English "idiom" completely and was thus famous for his "Welk-isms," such as "George, I want to see you when you have a minute, right now" and "Now for my accordion solo; Myron, will you join me?" His TV show was recorded as if it were a live performance, and it was sometimes quite free-wheeling. Another famous "Welk-ism" was his trademark count-off, "A one and a two . . . ," which was immortalized on his California automobile license plate that read "A1ANA2." This plate is visible on the front of a Model A Ford in one of the shows from 1980.

He often took women from the audience for a turn around the dance floor. During one show, Welk brought a cameraman out to dance with one of the women and took over the camera himself.

Welk's musicians were always top-quality, including accordionist Myron Floren, concert violinist Dick Kesner, guitarist Buddy Merrill, and New Orleans Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain. Though Welk was occasionally rumored to be very tight with a dollar, he paid his regular band members top scale – a very good living for a working musician. Long tenure was very common among the regulars. For example, Floren was the band's assistant conductor throughout the show's run. He was noted for spotlighting individual members of his band and show. His band was well disciplined and had excellent arrangements in all styles.[citation needed] One notable showcase was his album with the noted jazz saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

Welk had a number of instrumental hits, including a cover of the song "Yellow Bird." His highest charting record was "Calcutta", which achieved hit status in 1961.[18] Welk himself was indifferent to the tune, but his musical director, George Cates, said that if Welk did not wish to record the song, he (Cates) would. Welk replied, "Well, if it's good enough for you, George, I guess it's good enough for me."[this quote needs a citation] Although the rock-and-roll explosion in the mid-1950s had driven most older artists off the charts, "Calcutta" reached number 1 on the U.S. pop charts between 13 and 26 February 1961; it was recorded in only one take.[19] The tune knocked the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" out of the #1 position, and it kept the Miracles' "Shop Around" from becoming the group's first #1 hit, holding their recording at #2. It sold more than one million copies and was awarded a gold disc.[20] The album "Calcutta" also achieved number-one status. The albums "Last Date," "Yellow Bird," "Moon River," "Young World" and "Baby Elephant Walk and Theme from the Brothers Grimm," produced in the early 60s, were in Billboard's top ten; nine more albums produced between 1956 and 1963 were in the top twenty. His albums continued to chart through 1973.[18]

Welk's insistence on wholesome entertainment led him to be a somewhat stern taskmaster at times. For example, he fired Alice Lon, at the time the show's "Champagne Lady," because he believed she was showing too much leg.[21] Welk told the audience that he would not tolerate such "cheesecake" performances on his show; he later tried unsuccessfully to rehire the singer after fan mail indicated overwhelmingly that viewers disagreed with her dismissal. He then had a series of short-term "Champagne Ladies" before Norma Zimmer filled that spot on a permanent basis. Highly involved with his stars' personal lives, he often arbitrated their marriage disputes.[21]

Despite its staid reputation, The Lawrence Welk Show nonetheless did keep up with the times and never limited itself strictly to big-band era music. During the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the show incorporated material by the contemporary sources The Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, The Everly Brothers and Paul Williams and so on, all redone in a format that was easily digestible to older viewers. Originally produced in black and white, in 1957 the show began being recorded on videotape, and it switched to color for the fall 1965 season. In time, it featured synthesized music and, toward the end of its run, early chroma key technology added a new dimension to the story settings sometimes used for the musical numbers. Welk referred to his blue-screen effect in one episode as "the magic of television."[citation needed]

During its network run, The Lawrence Welk Show aired on ABC on Saturday nights at 9 p.m. (Eastern Time), moving up a half-hour to 8:30 p.m. in the fall of 1963. In fact, Welk headlined two weekly prime-time shows on ABC for three years. From 1956 to 1958, he hosted a show titled Top Tunes and New Talent, which aired on Monday nights. The series moved to Wednesdays in Fall 1958 and was renamed The Plymouth Show, which ended in May 1959. During that time, the Saturday show was also known as The Dodge Dancing Party. During this period, the networks were in the process of eliminating programming that was seen as having either too old of an audience, did not appeal to urban residents, or both (the so-called Rural Purge). As The Lawrence Welk Show fit into this category, ABC ended its run in 1971. Welk thanked ABC and the sponsors at the end of the last network show. The Lawrence Welk Show continued on as a first-run syndicated shown on 250 stations across the country until the final original show was produced in 1982 when Welk decided to retire. While many longtime TV shows suffered a serious ratings drop during counterculture movement of the late 1960s, The Lawrence Welk Show survived largely intact and in fact experienced an increase in viewership during this time.

For the entire run, musical numbers were divided fairly evenly between pre-recorded lip-and-finger-sync performances and those recorded live to film or tape. Generally, the big production numbers featuring a myriad of dancing and singing performances were recorded earlier in the day or the day before, often at famous recording studios in and around nearby Hollywood, while the more intimate numbers were recorded live-to-tape or film.

Personal life

Lawrence Welk at ground breaking for the new Union Bank in Santa Monica, California, 1960

Welk was married for 61 years, until his death in 1992, to Fern Renner (August 26, 1903 – February 13, 2002), with whom he had three children. One of his sons, Lawrence Welk Jr., married fellow Lawrence Welk Show performer Tanya Falan; they later divorced. Welk had many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of them, grandson Lawrence Welk III, who usually goes by "Larry Welk," was a reporter and helicopter traffic pilot for KCAL-TV and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles until 2010.[22]

Known as a skillful businessman, Welk had investments in real estate and music publishing. He was the general partner in a commercial real estate development located at 100 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. The 21-story tall white tower is the tallest building in Santa Monica and is located on the bluffs overlooking Santa Monica Bay at Ocean Ave.[23] It was a joint venture with the engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, and its largest original tenant was GTE, now Verizon. He also owned the adjacent 16-story luxury apartment building at 1219 Ocean Ave.,[24] "The Lawrence Welk Champagne Towers," and Welk made his personal residence in the complex. He built the adjacent 11-story office building at 1277 Ocean Ave.,[25] at Arizona St., the Wilshire Palisades building. Designed to resemble a white ocean liner, it has a wedge-shaped "bow" edge, receding "decks" with railings, and air conditioner covers that look like smokestacks. Its shape creates a landscaped plaza on the corner, and the result is a landmark.

Welk enjoyed playing golf, which he first took up in the late 1950s, and was often a regular at many celebrity pro-ams such as the Bob Hope Desert Classic.

Welk was awarded four US design patents:

  • A musically-themed restaurant menu[26]
  • An accordion-themed tray for serving food at a restaurant[27]
  • An accordion-themed tray for serving food at a restaurant[28]
  • An accordion-themed ash tray[29]

A devout, lifelong Roman Catholic, Welk was a daily communicant, which is corroborated in numerous biographies, by his autobiography and by his family and his many staff, friends and associates throughout the years.[30]

Later years

Welk's grave at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California

After retiring from his show and from the road in 1982, Welk continued to air reruns of his shows, which were repackaged first for syndication and, starting in 1986, for public television. He also starred in and produced a pair of Christmas specials in 1984 and 1985. In addition, he owned a restaurant and club in Escondido where he filmed lead-ins for reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show.

Welk completely retired from all public appearances in 1992 at the age of 89. He died on May 17 in his Santa Monica apartment surrounded by family and was buried in Culver City's Holy Cross Cemetery.[31] The cause of death was officially "bronchial pneumonia with cerebrovascular insufficiency as a contributing factor".[32]


Year Single Chart positions
1938 "Colorado Sunset" 17 - -
"Change Partners" 13 - -
"I Won't Tell a Soul" / 8 - -
"Two Sleepy People" 13 - -
1939 "Annabelle" 10 - -
"The Moon Is a Silver Dollar" 7 - -
"Bubbles In the Wine" (Instrumental) 13 - -
"I'm Happy About the Whole Thing" (Instrumental) 18 - -
1941 "Daddy's Lullaby" / 21 - -
"Maria Elena" (Instrumental) 22 - -
"Little Sleepy Head" 21 - -
1942 "Dear Home In Holland" 21 - -
1944 "Cleanin' My Rifle (And Dreamin' of You)" / 23 - -
"I Wish That I Could Hide Inside This Letter" 20 - -
"Don't Sweetheart Me" / 2 - -
"Mairzy Doats" (Instrumental) 16 - -
"Is My Baby Blue Tonight?" 13 - -
1945 "Shame On You"*(w/ Red Foley) 13 - -
1953 "Oh Happy Day" 5 3 -
1955 "Bonnie Blue Gal" - 27 -
1956 "Moritat" 17 - -
"The Poor People of Paris" 17 - -
"On the Street Where You Live" (Instrumental) 96 - -
"Weary Blues"(w/ McGuire Sisters) / 32 42 -
"In the Alps"(w/ McGuire Sisters) 63 - -
"Tonight You Belong To Me"(w/ Lennon Sisters) / 17 3 -
"When the Lilacs Bloom Again" 70 18 -
1957 "Cinco Robles" - 29 -
"Liechtenstein Polka" 48 - -
1960 "Last Date" 21 103 -
"Calcutta" (Instrumental) 1 1 -
1961 "Theme From My Three Sons" (Instrumental) 55 28 -
"Out of a Clear Blue Sky" - 128 -
"Yellow Bird" 71 - -
"Riders In the Sky" / 87 69 -
"My Love For You" - 128 -
"A-One A-Two A-Cha Cha Cha" (Instrumental) 117 94 -
1962 "Runaway" 56 87 -
"Baby Elephant Walk" (Instrumental) 48 84 10
"Theme from The Brothers Grimm" (Instrumental) - 130 -
"Zero-Zero" (Instrumental) 98 79 -
1963 "Scarlett O'Hara" (Instrumental) 89 100 -
"Breakwater" (Instrumental) 100 101 -
"Blue Velvet" (Instrumental) 103 - -
"Fiesta" (Instrumental) 106 111 -
1964 "Stockholm" (Instrumental) 91 115 -
1965 "Apples and Bananas" (Instrumental) 75 88 17
1967 "The Beat Goes On" 104 94 -
1968 "Green Tambourine" - - 27
1970 "Southtown, USA" (Instrumental) - - 37

* "Shame On You" also made the US country charts, hitting #1. It's flipside, "At Mail Call Today" also charted US country #3. |** "Calcutta" also made the US R&B charts, hitting #10.


In 1961, Welk was inducted as a charter member of the Rough Rider Award from his native North Dakota.[33] He later served as the Grand Marshal for the Rose Bowl's Tournament of Roses parade in 1972.

In 1994, Welk was inducted into the International Polka Music Hall Of Fame.[34]

Welk has a star for Recording on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6613½ Hollywood Blvd. He has a second star at 1601 Vine Street for Television.

In 2007, Welk became a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.


Welk's band continues to appear in a dedicated theater in Branson, Missouri. In addition, the television show has been repackaged for broadcast on PBS stations, with updates from show performers appearing as wraparounds where commercial breaks were during the original shows. The repackaged shows are broadcast at roughly the same Saturday-night time slot as the original ABC shows, and special longer Welk show rebroadcasts are often shown during individual stations' fund-raising periods. These repackaged shows are produced by the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority.[35]

A resort community developed by Welk and promoted heavily by him on the show is named for him. Formerly known as "Lawrence Welk Village," the Welk Resort and Champagne Village are just off Interstate 15 north of Escondido, California, about 38 miles north of downtown San Diego. Lawrence Welk Village was where Welk actually lived in a rather affluent "cottage." The resort is open to the public and contains two golf courses, dozens of upscale timeshares, and a theater that contains a museum of Welk's life. The Welk Resort Theatre performs live Broadway musicals year round.

His organization, The Welk Group, consists of: Welk Resorts (run his grandson Jon Fredricks), with communities in Escondido, Palm Springs, Branson MO, Lake Tahoe and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Welk Syndication, which broadcasts the show on public television; and the Welk Music Group, which operates record labels Sugar Hill, Vanguard and Ranwood. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, the Welk Group was known as "Teleklew," in which tele stood for television and klew was Welk spelled backwards.

The "Live Lawrence Welk Show" makes annual concert tours across the United States and Canada, featuring stars from the television series, including Ralna English, Mary Lou Metzger, Jack Imel, Gail Farrell, Anacani and Big Tiny Little.

Welk's variety show has been repeatedly parodied in U.S. popular entertainment for decades. In particular the comedy show Saturday Night Live has had a recurring sketch during the 2000s, in which he is portrayed by Fred Armisen.

See also


All books written with Bernice McGeehan and published by Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), except where indicated:


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  29. US patent D170898, Lawrence Welk, "ASH TRAY", issued 1953-11-17 
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External links